Saturday, January 23, 2016

36 Hours in Phoenix

When I started this blog in 2008, I thought it would be about beer, wine, and food in Philly. I had no idea that I’d leave the area for a few years. With little to write about in Western MA, the blog evolved to a focus on travel. While I’m back in Philly, I still prefer to write about other places. I’ve found that travel enlivens me. The experience of being “out of place” is my reason to be. I like the unfamiliarity. I enjoy the anonymity. Perhaps more so than others, I'm compelled to travel.

On my way to San Francisco, this past October, I made a stopover in Phoenix. I was looking to add another stop to the trip; the price was right for Phoenix. I visited Phoenix when I was in 5th grade. I recall Sun Devil Stadium and little else. Before this visit, I imagined that there would be a sadness about the city. I visited Las Vegas in 2011 and the effects of the housing crisis were visible, if not inescapable. I thought Phoenix would be the same, but with slight recovery. Phoenix didn’t have much sadness; perhaps, simply, I was happy to be in the sun. I don’t know that the city is vibrant, but everything I did was lovely.

My main reason for choosing Phoenix was to visit Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West School of Architecture. I signed up for the three-hour extended tour. It is worth the extra cost. I visited Fallingwater in June; that tour is about an hour and is over in a moment. I plan to revisit and pay for a longer tour. At Taliesin, the extended tour allows the visitor to linger, enjoy tea and sandwiches in the dining room, and view other structures on the property. I spent three hours taking photos and vaguely listening to the tour guide. It was relaxing and gorgeous.

My other stops in Phoenix included the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, the ASU Ceramics Research Center, and Arcosanti. The SMoCA has a permanent James Turrell installation. I planned my stop to experience the hour before sunset. I was by myself the entire time. If you haven’t seen anything by James Turrell and you’re in the Philly area, checkout the Chestnut Hill Friends Meeting House. They open their Skyspace a few times a month. I fell in love with James Turrell at the Guggenheim in 2013. Since then, I seek out his work wherever I can. His art is an experience; it’ll challenge your conception of art. I could try to describe it further, but it would be pointless.

Knight Rise, 2001

With regards to food, I ate one meal in Phoenix. There was one item I wanted to eat: pizza. Specifically, I wanted to eat at Pizzeria Bianco. Pizza means more to me than one food should mean to a person. I hadn’t eaten pizza in five months. I wanted it to be very, very good. The lore surrounding Chris Bianco spans the continent. Admittedly, this was a very compelling reason to stop in Phoenix.
As a single diner, I can easily slip into restaurants with a long wait. Thus, I walked into Pizzeria Bianco around 7:00pm on a Friday to find one open seat at the bar. The service was rather off-putting; often, I think, people don’t know how to deal with a single woman. I ordered the Margherita and a glass of red wine. I’ve been educated in the pizza school of thought that you must try the plain pizza. Quite honestly, I ate the entire thing. The pizza was solid; the crust and the ingredients were good, and thus, you have a good pizza. It’s incredibly simple, but incredibly hard to achieve.

I stayed in Phoenix for a brief 36 hours. When I was in college I recall thinking that the NYTimes “36 Hours” articles were silly. I couldn’t imagine why anyone would spend such a short amount of time on a trip. In my head, every trip was a week long. Now, I understand the 36 Hours concept. It’s exciting for me to plan a quick trip somewhere new or somewhere I’ve been before. Certain places may not be great for a week, but they can be awesome for a brief stopover.


Saturday, January 16, 2016

San Francisco Lives

If I could move today, I’d relocate to San Francisco. I have a long-time curiosity with the city by the bay. In October, I visited for the fourth time. The first time I ventured west, I was nineteen. At that time, I was convinced that I had a previous life in San Fran. I felt at home there; it was as if I had been there before. I couldn’t drink, barely knew good food, rode a cable car, and ate too much Ghirardelli chocolate. While I don’t necessarily believe in previous lives anymore, I still adore San Francisco. With each visit, I love it a little bit more.

Lands End Park
I made many new stops, but did revisit a few places. I ate at State Bird Provisions again; it didn’t live up to the first visit, two years ago. I went to Russian River Brewery; always great, even though the food is very suburban, middle-of-the-road, safe. And, I stopped at Lagunitas for a fresh Lagunitas Sucks; I like their outdoor beer garden and am convinced that the beer tastes better closer to the source.

In my new ventures, I had one of the best meals of my life at Saison. For this incredible meal, I spent more money, not surprisingly, on one dinner than I ever have before. I’ve been very #blessed to have the means, friends, and time to eat at several Michelin star restaurants. I will never forget my first: Alinea, in 2009. Alinea set the bar for restaurant “experiences.” To quote myself, Alinea is “a completely indulgent escape from your everyday life.”[1] This rather theatrical dining performance has only been matched by Eleven Madison Park. There is something encompassing and experiential about these restaurants. 

I had no expectations for Saison. I avoided over researching. The twenty-course meal was beyond anything I could have imagined. The food was sleek and clean: simultaneously simple and complex. The service was also lovely, familiar, and polished. I have never smoked a cigarette in my life, but I considered doing so after this meal.

Marin County Civic Center - Frank Lloyd Wright
Otherwise, I enjoyed slightly less indulgent dinners at Mission Chinese Food, Ramen Shop in Oakland, and Ippuku in Berkeley, coffee at Four Barrel on Valencia, Saint Frank, and Blue Bottle in Oakland, pastries at Tartine Bakery & Cafe, Craftsman & Wolves, B. Patisserie, tacos at La Taqueria in the Mission, and beers at Monk’s Kettle and Toronado. Needless to say, there was no hunger on this trip.

Aside from Saison, the other dinner highlight was Ippuku. This rather authentic feeling (so I’m told) Japanese place was very cool. I ate something that most of you will cringe at. When I tell people about this, in person, I say it with a sense of embarrassment. I feel bad writing it down. I ate chicken tartar. Served with a raw quail egg and nori, it was actually very good. The rest of the meal was also excellent. The entire experience was something you can't find in Philadelphia.

In the midst of all this eating, I visited the DeYoung Musuem, the Marin County Civic Center, saw Todd Barry in Oakland, and practiced yoga a few times. I still feel something in San Francisco. There is a familiarity and possible happiness about it. People seem content. The weather is enigmatic and not unpleasant. The food is endless. Perhaps I wasn't wrong about the previous life, or perhaps it's something about a future life.

Rebel Within - Craftsman & Wolves
Morning Bun - Tartine
Kougin-amann - B. Patisserie
Sea Urchin Liquid Toast - Saison
Black Sesame Spicy Tantanmen - Ramen Shop
Tori Yukke - Ippuku
La Taqueria

[1] Talley, Gina, “Chicago! Part 2: Alinea,” accessed January 9, 2016,

Monday, January 4, 2016

Icelandic Dreams

View of Reykjavík from Hallgrímskirkja
I become obsessed, most often, with ideas. Rarely, any longer, does my attention cling to people. Rather, I think of something and I must do it. Whether the thought involves visiting a certain city or cooking a specific dish, an idea will stay with me until I make something of it.

In the depression of grad school, I became obsessed with the idea of visiting Iceland. Life was bleak in Western Massachusetts. I looked at the map and thought, "Ah, Iceland, it’s not that far away. After a two-hour drive to Boston, it’s only a 4.5 hour flight. I can be in another country in 6.5 hours! I can go for the weekend!" This is the kind of fantastical thinking required to endure grad school. The meditations were necessary. Of course, I didn’t have the budget to go to Iceland. But, I never let go of the idea.

Six years later, I visited Iceland. This past summer, I was eager to be anywhere but Philadelphia. Thus, I planned a week-long road trip around Iceland with my mother. Before Instagram, the attraction of Iceland was based upon the uniqueness of visiting another country. After Instagram, I felt as though I had seen it all. I knew the sights and mysterious landscape. I had a lengthy list of stops.

Day 1: After arriving, we rented a car and stayed in Reykjavík for one night. Reykjavík is a tiny city. 80% of Iceland’s 350,000 people live in the capital city. You can easily traverse the city on foot. After parking near our AirBnb, we went right to breakfast at the Laundromat. The “Breakfast American” had everything I’ve ever wanted for breakfast on one plate: cheese? Skyrr? Fruit? Eggs?! Bread?! More bread? 
Laundromat Cafe in Reykjavík
Reykjavík Roasters

After, we hit the required spots in the city: Hallgrímskirkja, Harpa, and the Sun Voyager. I stopped at Reykjavík Roasters for a cappuccino. This coffee shop is in my top three (Revolver in Vancouver and Houndstooth in Austin are the other two). I’m sure it’s something about the milk; all of their produce/dairy/meat is untainted by chemicals, pesticides, etc. 

I took a quick run along the coast while my mother took a nap. I was determined to avoid jet lag; a run plus taking blue-green algae seems to do the trick. We had dinner at Grillmarkaðurinn, a farm-to-table Icelandic restaurant. I wasn’t worried about eating in Iceland; actually, I can’t think of a country I would be worried about eating in... Their tasting portions are not tiny, American tasting portions. Their dishes were much larger and I was stuffed. It was excellent.
Chocolate Croissant, Bakarí Sandholt in Reykjavík 

Day 2:
The next day we left Reykjavík early, after a stop at Bakkari Sandholt. As I do in a US bakery, I ordered a bunch of different pastries, with little idea as to what they are, by pointing at them in the case. We ate them in the car on the way to the Blue Lagoon. Every pastry I had in Iceland was better than every pastry I’ve had in the US (minus a recent trip to Tartine Bakery). The flakiness! I will never eat another croissant in Philadelphia. 

The Blue Lagoon was very relaxing (besides the shower attendants who make you shower, naked, before and after). I can see why busses go directly there from the airport. I planned to stop at the lagoon early in the day, as I knew it would become very crowded. We left as giant tour busses arrived.

After this, we did the standard Golden Circle stops: Þingvellir, Gullfoss waterfall, and Geysir/Strokkur geysers. This might be blasphemous, but I’d recommend skipping the Golden Circle. This is the most popular tourbus route and the sights do not compare to the rest of the country: maybe go north to the Snæfellsnes peninsula or inland north, if your time is limited. 

I planned the roadtrip counter-clockwise, so we drove southeast. We stopped at two more waterfalls (Seljalandsfoss and Skógafoss); they were far better than the one above.
Langostine at Pakkhús Restaurant in Höfn

I couldn’t find a place to stay in Vík or Höfn, but we needed to cover that ground on the first day. We drove to the top of a small peninsula, Dyrhólaey, to view the black sand beaches of Vík. Then we continued to Höfn for dinner. The fresh langostine was delicious. Then we backtracked to our less than clean, farmhouse AirBnB. There is something very eerie about the combination of tractor noises after midnight and never-ending sunlight. 

Day 3: We continued to the east to Svartifoss waterfall in Skaftafell in Vatnajökull National Park. I was most excited to see this black waterfall. We took a 30-minute hike down to the waterfall. Yet, the sky was overcast, the lighting drab, and the black stone appeared gray. But, the drive to Svartifoss was lovely. Fields of lupine and exit glaciers were visible. After the hike, we drove to Jökulsárlón to see the exit glacier lagoon. It was freezing. Weather-wise, I think we were very lucky. But, it is always windy in Iceland and it may rain at any time. Jökulsárlón was the coldest moment of the trip and I barely made it out to take pictures. We continued to drive for hours in the Eastern Fjords. It was the most lovely and slow-going drive of the trip: carless, misty and ominous. We stayed the tiny, tiny town of Stöðvarfjörður: population 200.

Day 4: We worked our way out of the Eastern Fjords with a stop in the tiny fishing village of Seyðisfjörður: population 665. The drive to the town was over a rather large snow-covered mountain (thanks mom for doing the scary driving that your thirty-one year-old daughter can't handle). I wanted to see a tiny, quaint blue church. Nothing was open in the town; we continued to the North with a stop at Víti Crater, Dettifoss and Selfoss waterfalls, and mudpots in Mývatn. It was a dramatic day of driving, the sights ranged from the gray, foggy fjords to the red clay landscape of Mars. I was very excited about stopping at the Game of Thrones cave from Season 2. You can climb down into the cave a little bit. You have to avoid all the other people climbing about, but it’s pretty cool to imagine how they filmed the scene in such a tiny space.

Farmhouse Lunch at Vogafjós Cowshed Cafe
Then we stopped for lunch on a farm at the Cowshed Café. I ate a "farm lunch." Each ingredient was from the farm: smoked mozzarella, fresh mozzarella, cottage cheese, raw lamb, smoked salmon, and pickled salmon with Hver (Bread cooked underground). All of the cheeses were great and the raw lamb was actually delicious. I’ve never eaten raw lamb before; there is almost no similarity to lamb we eat in America. The taste was very much like beef tartar. Finally, we stopped at a nearby waterfall, Goðafoss. I received a text message from a friend in Philly, while at the waterfall. Iceland is very well connected. Their internet and cell coverage makes the US seem like a land of 3G. I tried to keep my phone in airplane most of the time. I found it bizarre to be at a beautiful waterfall in Iceland while texting about events in Philly.

Day 5: We continued west from Laugar to Akureki, the capital of the North. We stopped at Safnasafnið, an outsider art museum. It was tiny, but had great stuff. Next we went to the world’s Northernmost Botanical Gardens in Akureki. I’m always amazed to see flowers blooming at different times, in different places. Columbines were blooming in July. Next, we went into the church, Akureyrarkirkja, which was designed by the same architect as Hallgrímskirkja

Coffee and cakes at Tea Room Áskaffi in Glaumbær
After Akureki, we drove to the Catholic church in Hólar where the last Catholic bishop in Iceland was beheaded in 1550. Then we stopped at Tea Room Áskaffi in Glaumbær, a cafe next to traditional straw houses. The coffee and tiny cakes were delicious. We continued to the Western Fjords to our AirBnB. We were not near anywhere to eat, so we had gas station food. Let me say, this was the best gas station food I’ve eaten. Smoked salmon with hardboiled egg and vegetables for 9.00 USD. Awesome. I wish we had more time to explore the Western Fjords, but distance has little relationship to drive time. 90 miles can take hours. And, the roads are not paved. I found it a miracle that we did not end up with flat tire.
Cinnamon Chocolate pastry from Bakery Nesbrauð in Stykkishólmur
Day 6: We drove around the Snæfellsnes peninsula. This beautiful area might have seemed more beautiful to me if I had seen it first. After days of unbelievable sights, one after another, this hilly peninsula seemed simply okay. It’s famous for the skateboarding scene in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. We did stop at Bakery Nesbrauð in Stykkishólmur for an excellent chocolate/cinnamon bun.

We arrived back in Reykjavík with time for me to return to Reykjavík Roasters. Then we had an early dinner at Iceland Bar where I could eat Hakarl, fermented shark. Anthony Bourdain, famously, called this the most disgusting food he’s ever put in his mouth. This was not the most disgusting food I’ve ever eaten. Imagine cheese that’s about a month old, with the texture of a raw, meaty fish. There was nothing wrong with the shark; it wasn’t unpleasant. The bar also had the best fish and chips I’ve ever eaten: light and fluffy with excellent fries. Afterwards, even though I was pretty full, we stopped for ice cream at Paradis. This ice cream didn’t have the harder texture of a standard American ice cream. Rather it was instantly drippy and soft. Still good.

Hákarl (fermented shark) and 
dried cod at Íslenski Barinn in Reykjavík
Ice cream at Paradis in Reykjavík

In the end, I didn’t buy a sweater or a weird troll figurine. I’m rather selective in my purchases. I did buy a thimble; I’ve had a collection since I was ten. Before the trip, I made a long-considered, yet impulsive, purchase of a DSLR camera. I used to be into B&W and developing my own photos. I decided to make the jump to a real camera for Iceland. The thought of taking pictures of this fantastical place with an iPhone seemed ridiculous. While I purchased nothing more than a thimble, I have the photos and the tastes. After many years of obsession, this dream came to pass.

Inside Harpa
Blue Lagoon
Exit glacier and Lupine in South Iceland
Skógafoss in the South

Lighthouse in Dyrhólaey

Glacier Lagoon in Jökulsárlón
Driving in the Eastern Fjords.
Driving in the North towards Mývatn
Mud pots and steam vents in Mývatn

Ubiquitous sheep.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Upper-South Roadtrip

In June, I went to Kentucky, again, to read the AP US History exam. I decided to drive this year. I guess you could say I'm a driving person. A few weeks before this trip I experienced a life event. Yeah, let's go with that, "life event." It wasn't one of those times when you have to let your employer know that the number of deductions on your taxes has changed, but a "life event" nonetheless. I suppose I should say that no one has cancer and no one died. I was ready to leave town.

On my way to Kentucky, I stopped in Cleveland to see one of my best friends from high school. After the reading in Louisville, I ventured to Nashville, Asheville, Durham, and finally, D.C. to see my other best friend from high school. In all, I logged 2200 miles. I listened to two audio books (Marc Maron's Attempting Normal and Lena Dunham's Not That Kind of Girl), six Stern shows, a Phish show or two, and countless podcasts. I have a fascination with seeing the US, or anywhere for that matter, by car. I imagine that some day, when we run out of oil (suuure we'll figure something else out...right?), the old-fashioned road trip will be an experience of the past. When I can make a road trip happen, especially to places I haven't explored before, I have to go. 

On the way to Cleveland I stopped, very early in the AM, at Fallingwater. I can't believe I had never visited before. The notion that Fallingwater is in the state I live in has taunted me for years. But, a four and a half hour drive away, this architectural gem is not exactly close to Philly. After Fallingwater I stopped at the Mattress Factory in Pittsburgh. They have three permanent James Turrell installations that are worth a stop, amongst the other contemporary art exhibits.

After a night in Cleveland I drove down to Louisville. I don't have much new to report about Louisville. I finally made it to Hammerheads and Holy Grale. Hammerheads is such a dive, I have to love it. It's the kind of dive that when you leave, you smell like the fryer. The tacos were awesome. Also, Holy Grale is a beautiful spot and the food was great. Otherwise, Rye remains the favorite spot to drink. The food wasn't nearly as good as last year. 
On my way to Nashville I detoured to Willett Distillery for a tour. I wanted to see a smaller production distillery and this was certainly it. Willett seems microscopic compared to Heaven Hill up the road. I bought a Two Year Old and Three Year Old Single Barrel Rye for my brother and continued south.

When I was planning the road trip, Nashville seemed like a natural next stop. I didn't have any expectations about the place. But, everything I ate in Nashville was perfect. There wasn't one miss, and well, I ate quite a bit for one person in 24 hours. I started at Mas Tacos Por Favor with chicken pozole and pork tacos. The soup was the highlight: tender chicken, roasted corn, avocado, cherry tomato, cotija.

After the tacos I went to Barista Parlor for espresso. The macchiato was excellent and I couldn't resist a warm, homemade PB&J pop-tart. I mean, c'mon, pop-tart? When was the last time you had a pop-tart? (Okay, I had one a few days prior during the reading's last snack break; it was a moment of weakness.) To use academic language, this pop-tart "moved beyond" the standard pop-tart, as the crust was more croissant like, amazing.

After taking a nap during an insane thunderstorm, I ventured out for dinner. Honestly, I was so full, I wasn't even sure I could eat dinner. But, I'm glad I made it out. I went to Rolf and Daughters for an impeccable meal. This restaurant reminded me of Russ and Daughters in Brooklyn (not simply because of the name similarity) and Rustic Canyon in Santa Monica. The meal was unusual, surprising, creative, and well-executed. 

Side note: After three years back in Philly, I'm at another food standstill. Save three spots, I may need to be done with eating in Philly (and, two of the three places are actually in Collingswood, NJ). 

Anyway, it's rare to be entirely satisfied by a meal. Rolf and Daughters was beyond. I ate three dishes; really, I didn't want to eat the third, but everything was so perfect, I decided to try one more dish. 
1. Diver Scallop, seaweed, iceplant, yuzu kosho. 
2. Beef tartare, sunflower, barley, egg yolk 
3. Farro gemelli, hen of the woods, spigarello, sarvecchio, lemon. 
Their use of succulents and strange herbs I had never heard of was quite fun.


I'm not sure if a trip to Nashville would be complete without hot chicken. I really mean that. I don't know if it's a requirement, but I think so. On my way out of town, I went to Prince's Hot Chicken exactly when it opened. I agonized over how hot to order it: regular, medium, hot, or extra hot. I read Yelps, texted friends to text locals, listened to Marc Maron lament over the pain of ordering hot, and chatted with the friendly lady taking my order. I went with medium and found it to be not hot at all. I forget that my tolerance for spicy is probably higher than most. I was disappointed that it wasn't hot enough for me, but it was the best fried chicken that I have ever, ever had. The kind of "best ever" that makes you never want to eat that specific type of food anywhere else. 

The tiny restaurant was already full, so I ate in my car. It was over 90 degrees that day. I sat in my car, in the parking lot, A/C blasting, eating a fried half chicken with my hands. No shame. I did it. And I could not stop myself. (Well, maybe some moralistic sense of shame about eating meat.)
I also bought the hummingbird cake from the nice woman who sells cakes inside Prince's. Again, hummingbird cake?! Had to. Not something we see in the North: banana pineapple spice cake with frosting, sprinkles, walnuts, and a maraschino cherry. It was a very moist cake and I did eat that with some sense of shame as I drove east from Nashville.
Without a doubt, Nashville was the high point for food on this trip. My next stop was the biggest disappointment: dinner at Blackberry Farm in east Tennessee. I can't even go into it. I wouldn't know where, in a seven-course dinner of calamity, to begin. The grounds were beautiful, I'll give it that. The rest of the "experience" left me angry and jilted.
The next stop was Asheville. I had always heard that it was a cool-hippie-mountain-town. My thoughts about Asheville may be colored by a rather dodgy AirBnb stay, a lingering police car observing me go into said AirBnb because a guy was walking down the street, and the sound of gunshots late into the night. I left that AirBnb very early and went to yoga. Afterwards, I had a nice breakfast at Over Easy Cafe, did some thrifting, and hit the road for Durham. Maybe Asheville needs another look. It has a burgeoning hipster presence and a very cute art deco downtown. But, I felt a little claustrophobic in those mountains. 

Next, I went to Durham. I heard good things about the town and had always wanted to visit. I drove through Duke. Whoa. Country club college! Duke is the beautiful fantasy college I always imagined. If I had visited Duke, I don't know that I would have ended up in West Philly for college. 

Anyway, I drove over to Chapel Hill, in an effort to figure out the difference between Durham and Chapel Hill. Friendly people at the back bar at Lantern (not great food) informed me of the difference: "Chapel Hill is a college town. Durham is a city." Okay, sure. Apparently, Durham has "arts and culture." Chapel Hill did feel like a suburban college town, while Durham has some amount of authenticity to it. The only highlight of this stop was Scratch Bakery. Buttermilk donuts and pecan sandies. Yes.

After several days of eating for two (not in the pregnant way), I was tired of food. I stopped in Richmond to practice yoga and kept going to DC. I went to the excellent Peregrine Espresso to wait for my friends to be done with their real jobs. Kindly, my friends gave me a few choices for dinner. On the list was a Japanese spot, Izakaya Seki. After many days of eating fried food (duh, Gina, its the Midwest and the South), Japanese was the clear choice. I wanted something simple, clean, and pure. The three of us handily made our way through the menu. This was a perfect end to a solid road trip.